When egregious use of police force crosses into criminal misconduct and officers are not held accountable like other citizens, community trust is corroded.
THE national anthem protests sparked by San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick have now grown to include Seattle Reign star Megan Rapinoe and led to the Seattle Seahawks linking arms before Sunday’s season opener in a show of unity.
High-profile protests of race inequality make great fodder for talk radio. But former Seattle Seahawks player Russell Okung, speaking in defense of his Denver Broncos teammate’s national-anthem protest during Thursday’s prime-time NFL game, summed up the problem and opportunity of this growing dissent: “Protest is always the first action.”
Where will the protests over the fractured relationship between African-American communities and the police lead? What will actually change?
One place to start, at least in Washington, is a change in state law that effectively shields officers from prosecution for even the most egregious misuse of force. A Seattle Times investigation last year found that of the 213 people killed by police in Washington state between 2005 and 2014, just one officer, in Everett, was charged. And he walked free, despite an appalling set of facts.
The Legislature this year set up a special task force to reconsider the law described in The Times’ investigative piece as the “nation’s most restrictive law on holding officers accountable for the unjustified use of deadly force.” The task force of lawmakers, police attorneys and representatives of minority communities has met twice and is clearly wrestling with complex questions about public safety and officer safety, accountability and culpability.
Another meeting of the Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing, Joint Legislative Task Force is scheduled Tuesday in Olympia. If you want to see a change in our state law, put it on your calendar.
To convict an officer of criminal misconduct under the existing 1985 state law, a jury must find the officer acted with “malice.” Not that the force was reckless or beyond training. But with “malice.”
It is such a high standard that state charges have not been brought even in outrageous circumstances, including the shooting in Seattle of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams or in the fatal beating of Otto Zehm, a developmentally disabled Spokane man.
When egregious use of force crosses into criminal misconduct and the officer is not held accountable like any other citizen, community trust is corroded, tainting all police.”
Those cases are the extreme rarity in policing. Nationwide, only 54 officers have been criminally charged in state courts over the past decade and just 15 have been convicted or pleaded guilty, according to data presented at a task force meeting.
The vast majority of officers perform an invaluable service.
But when egregious use of force crosses into criminal misconduct and the officer is not held accountable like any other citizen, community trust is corroded, tainting all police.
Kaepernick alluded to that corrosion in explaining his protest. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he said. Sitting out the national anthem is a debatable method to protest, but Kaepernick has a point.